Parasite that can make you prettier or stupider

“A common parasite can increase a women’s attractiveness to the opposite sex but also make men more stupid, an Australian researcher says.

About 40 per cent of the world’s population is infected with Toxoplasma gondii, including about eight million Australians.”

This from the Sydney Morning Herald. The snarky comment on slashdot.org was “this explains Hollywood” (I was alerted to the story from slashdot).

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Currently reading…

  • Not Even Wrong, by Peter Woit, Basic Books, 2006. The backlash against superstring theory in physics is coming on strong. Lee Smolin also has a book on the topic. Is a theory that makes no testable predictions something that most physicists should spend two decades on? Woit says no. Started in today’s M’s chemotherapy treatment, went on to page 62 or so, will definitely finish.
  • The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Another overwhelmingly intelligent novel by Powers. A bit slow-going, especially now that reading about someone’s hospital experiences is not always what I want to do. But I can feel the genius between the lines, and, as usual, the critics are in awe of Powers; I’m pretty sure to finish this one, if only in the new year. Here’s an excerpt from Margaret Atwood writing in the New York Review of Books:

“If Powers were an American writer of the nineteenth century, which writer would he be? He’d probably be the Herman Melville of Moby-Dick. His picture is that big. Moby-Dick sank like a stone when it first came out: it had to wait almost a century before its true importance was recognized. Given Powers’s previous interest in devices like time capsules, I’d hazard that he has the long view in mind: open him up in a hundred years, and there, laid out before you in novel after novel, will be the preoccupations and obsessions and speech patterns and jokes and gruesome mistakes and eating habits and illusions and stupidities and loves and hates and guilts of his own time. All novels are time capsules, but Powers’s novels are larger and more inclusive time capsules than most.

I doubt that Richard Powers will have to wait a hundred years, however. American literature students will be into him with their picks and shovels before long. He’s the stuff of a thousand Ph.D. theses, or I’ll be the Wizard of Oz.”

  • Stuff for work, and plenty of it. ‘Nuff said.
  • Several recent issues of the New York Review of Books (thanks Tenley!).
  • The Black Book, by Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk won the Nobel prize for literature this year, and Tyler Cowen over at marginalrevolution.com has recommended this book as as the best to start with. Slow going so far. I find many other things to read before it. Is it because his vivid rendition of middle-class Istanbul is too much like the middle-class Athens that has left me such a sour taste? Not sure to finish this one.
  • American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. I picked this one up for diversion. I figured any book by someone who has a cc-authored book with Terry Pratchett will be a good choice for diversion, and nerds on the web seem to like what Gaiman does with his reinterpretation of mythology. This one has been the bedside book for the last several nights. Will finish, but is it a great book? No, not really. (If I change my mind when I’ve read it all, I’ll post again about it.)
  • The Rejection Collection, by Matthew Diffee, 2006. An excellent compilation of cartoons that the New Yorker rejected, by cartoonists who regularly publish there. An inspired gift, Rob!

Larry Lessig publishes "Code v2"

Here’s a second edition of Lessig’s book (first edition in 1999), done partly by wiki. It should not be amazing, after we’ve seen Wikipedia, yet I am amazed that it worked. The book is about the conceptual foundations needed for the intelligent design of cyberspace (where “intelligent” is taken to mean also the desire to preserve individual liberty in cyberspace).
The book is freely downloadable from the above link, and I’m eager to read it (confession: I never read the first edition of Code, but I have read Lessig’s Free Culture and was intrigued and completely convinced about the evils of indefinite copyright extensions and other such government handouts to “intellectual property” holding corporations).
Curious? Read the About page on the site.

French author F. Martel on "Culture in America"

French author comes to America, wonders “where’s the Ministry of Culture?”, is surprised by US vibrancy in arts, writes hefty tome. Sacre bleu! Maybe a country doesn’t need a Ministry of Culture to have a good arts scene!
Tyler Cowen has written Good and Plenty: The Creative Success of American Arts Funding (Princeton University Press, 2006). This article in the New York Times, found from Arts Journal Daily, points out that a French author has recently come out with a weighty tome on the same subject, reaching the conclusion that the US has a very effective decentralized system for supporting the arts; and that in France the intellectual elite are more into trying to preserve their privileges when they argue for more government support for the arts than trying to really promote the arts. The last point is of course no surprise to any economist; ulterior motives are not hard to see when you have been shown how to look for them.
If you want to read one of these books, Cowen’s has a lot to recommend it (and I confess ignorance of the book by Martel that the New York Times article discusses beyond what I read in the article). Perhaps the most important virtue of Cowen’s book is its brevity. I know I don’t have time to read Martel’s…

Economics Nobel Laureate attacks drug patents

Joseph Stiglitz is well known not just for his Nobel prize in economics but also for standing up to mainstream economics and speaking his mind openly (perhaps also in an exaggerated manner, sometimes, as in his book Globalization and Its Discontents).
His latest provocation is in
Stiglitz on patents in health sciences
The article is short and well written, worth a serious reading. In it, Stiglitz proposes the increased use of prizes to reward research in the medical fields, instead of using patents to offer monopoly protections as rewards, with their associated economic distortions, which in the case of medicine can mean the death of millions of people.
Many (mostly citing economics naively) would argue that patents are necessary to spur innovation. Stiglitz points out (he’s not the first to notice, but he has a very visible pulpit to say it from) that drug patents simply do nothing to spur the development of drugs for the poor of the planet.
It seems to me the only way patents can work for the poor is by enriching individuals such as Bill Gates, and then hoping that, just as Bill Gates, they will then put their money towards helping the poor. The natural question is: why should we wait for the whims of billionaires to do the ethically right thing? Instead, we can push our society to do the right thing for the poor independently of the opinions of billionaires (or dime-a-dozen economic policy commentators who chew over the “private property” cud in their attempt to extend monopoly power to more and more companies in the name of creating “incentives for innovation”).
At the very least, Stiglitz’s argument should remind us that patents have no track record of motivating innovation in new drugs. See also my previous post
Drug patents hold back innovation
So what do I think? I agree with Stiglitz on this issue. I would love to see more prizes to reward innovation in many fields, with the condition that prize winners must make their winning innovation publicly available. I know there are economic models that attempt to find circumstances in which the prize method is better than patents for encouraging innovation. Given the evidence I see, I estimate that these models overestimate the effectiveness of patents.
Is this because there is so much more money in being a consultant for a big monopoly, defending the monopoly’s worth to society with arguments as sophistical as necessary? Well, what cynical-minded economist (is there any other kind?) wouldn’t suspect so?
I do need to nitpick on Stiglitz on one point: it’s one thing to advocate prizes. How are they to be funded? (Stiglitz says: ” The prizes could be funded by governments in advanced industrial countries.”) Are we to wait for private benefactors to do it? If we really wait for the electorate in rich countries to do it, what makes us think they will care enough?
Perhaps it’s unfair to expect concrete policy proposals from an editorial in the British Medical Journal, but it’s not unfair to expect it from Professor Stiglitz. Maybe he has such a proposal published elsewhere. It would have to consider seriously the political economy question: “how can a medical prize fund be proposed to attract enough politically powerful supporters to become reality?” Then, one would have to consider whether such a prize fund should be one big international institution or whether there should be many national ones based in rich countries.

Books on demand in libraries soon?

Originally from slashdot.org, here is an article about a machine that would print and bind simultaneously two books on demand in about seven minutes. Apparently a large number (2.5 million, one of which in English) of out-of-copyright protection books are available and several libraries will have the machine in 2007. The New York Public Library is said to plan to have it in February.

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